About Time: Closing the Gender Gap in Jewish Organizational Life

By Dana Sheanin

Will our future be female? As I reflect on last summer’s allegations against sociologist Steven M. Cohen, I see the seeds of a critical transfer of leadership in Jewish organizational life.

In the past year, scores of women who have dedicated their careers to serving the Jewish community have spoken or written about the barriers to our advancement. These barriers exist on a continuum from sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of powerful professionals and philanthropists, to the pernicious persistence of pay inequity and the regular undervaluing of our work by male colleagues and supervisors.

Women cannot alter this reality by ourselves. Real change will require others to invest both their social capital and personal fortune to make it possible for us to reach our potential as leaders.

A 2018 survey by Leading Edge: The Alliance for Excellence in Jewish Leadership found that while our workforce is 70% female, women represent only 30% of CEOs in Jewish organizations. Leading Edge itself was created as a response to the dawning realization that baby boomers have already begun to retire and over the next five years, 75-90% of Jewish nonprofits will be seeking new executive leadership. Who will fill these positions?

Last fall Rachel Gildiner suggested we make 5779 the year of the Jewish women, arguing that “what [the Jewish community] needs  … is a systemic, enduring shift in the way that we think about and support women in Jewish professional life. We need to elevate more voices, create more seats at the decision-making table, and fund initiatives that empower more women to become successful leaders in this field. We also need more allies.”

I couldn’t agree more. A year ago, with the generous support of two forward thinking foundations, I created Voices for Good. This multi-pronged, Bay Area leadership initiative is amplifying women’s voices by providing a space for them to discuss sexual harassment, the wage gap, and their lived experiences as female leaders. In so doing, Voices for Good is strengthening the Jewish community’s talent pipeline and encouraging women to take both individual and collective action inspired by our values.

During our first year, 125 women have participated and have powerful things to say about the value of their experience. Yet, securing additional funds to expand the initiative has been challenging. Much of today’s Jewish philanthropy focuses on children – providing support for preschools, day schools, camps and teen programs to engage the unengaged. While as a parent, I know each of these is important, I also observe that it is adult women who anchor Jewish life – as professional leaders, mothers and teachers.

In this pivotal moment, everyone who cares about Jewish life has a responsibility to work toward gender equity in leadership. If you are a philanthropist, your financial support is rare, and deeply meaningful. If you serve on a board, I invite you to find a woman in your organization – volunteer or professional – whose skills you value, and ask her what you can do personally to support her advancement. And if you are a male CEO, it is incumbent upon you to identify and pursue every opportunity to support talented women – certainly through training, but more importantly by changing the narrative about who is a leader and what a CEO looks like.

No doubt, some will observe that numerous Jewish organizations already have female senior leaders. In fact, it is true that two legacy organizations, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, recently hired female CEOs with proven track records as advocates for women. Yet this is only the second time in 108 years for the Dallas Federation. When will more Federations, Jewish Community Centers and emergent organizations follow suit? What will it take for women to assume an equal number of seats at the leadership table?

This is how Leading Edge CEO Gali Cooks views the challenge, “there is no shortage of women who are well-qualified to lead Jewish organizations of all kinds. But our society’s perceptions of leadership, and the stories we tell ourselves about who is “in charge,” continue to leave women on the sidelines.”

It is well past time to change the story and invest in women as the drivers of a thriving Jewish community.

Dana Sheanin, MSW, MAJCS is the Chief Learning Officer at San Francisco-based Jewish LearningWorks. She is deeply committed to high caliber professional development and to advancing women’s leadership in Jewish life.

This piece is part of a new series from members of Voices for Good, a Bay Area fellowship, sponsored by Jewish LearningWorks, that amplifies the voices of women working in Jewish professional life.